STAR POWER
Edge|November 2021
How a Hollywood studio became the most exciting force in games
Alex Spencer

Two Edge 9s in the space a year is good going for any publisher. But with the very first two games it published? That might just be unprecedented. The one-two punch of Gorogoa and What Remains Of Edith Finch immediately established Annapurna Interactive as more than just the side project of a Hollywood studio, and led to it finishing runner-up for Publisher Of The Year in the 2017 Edge Awards, the very first year it was eligible. (It lost out to Nintendo – no cause for shame, in the year of Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.)

Looking back now, though, it’s clear that Annapurna was just getting started. In 2019, the publisher managed to one-up itself, landing a full hat-trick of 9s with Outer Wilds, Telling Lies and Sayonara Wild Hearts, which took the top three spots in our Game Of The Year list. And while it hasn’t managed anything quite so spectacular since, the publisher has kept its streak going, with a selection of (mostly) great games that just keeps growing.

That was underlined this summer when, a few weeks clear of all the E3 noise – a piece of timing that seems both canny and characteristically off-beat – Annapurna held its first showcase event. In the space of half an hour, it rattled through seven forthcoming titles, plus four developers with which Annapurna has partnered, before closing with a “wilfully cryptic” tease for an expansion to one of our favourite games of the past decade.

It’s a lineup to rival any in the big publisher broadcasts of the prior month, and indicative of where Annapurna stands today. With August’s Twelve Minutes (p112), the publisher has released its 16th game in less than five years, with another ten titles currently slated for release. That’s without counting the assorted ports and rereleases it has handled (a list that includes yet more of our favourites) or its unrevealed collaborations with these newly announced partners.

“None of us expected things to move as quickly as they did, but we also haven’t changed our approach,” says Annapurna Interactive president Nathan Gary. “We have grown naturally and in a way that works for us.” Which is not to say that growth has been slow. The publisher’s headcount has tripled since it was founded, to 15 people, and last year it opened an in-house development studio to make games of its own.

That expansion has not only increased the number of games in Annapurna’s portfolio, but widened the scope of what they cover. A couple of years ago we might have been able to pin down what to expect from an Annapurna game: arty, story-led, the kind of thing you’d share with friends who aren’t necessarily into playing games – the equivalent, perhaps, of the prestige pictures put out by its parent company. The showcase highlights that this is no longer the case.

A Memoir Blue certainly fits the bill: it’s a dialogue-free, hand-animated story about a young woman reflecting on long-forgotten memories. And there appears to be more than a touch of Gorogoa about the presentation of Storyteller, a puzzle game that has you slotting plot elements into comic-book-style panels to craft a story that matches the provided title. The Artful Escape feels like an obvious fit, too, if only because its lengthy development means it’s been on the publisher’s roster since the early days.

The rest, not so much. Solar Ash and Stray are two games that looked perfectly at home in Sony’s PS5 reveal event – the former an expansive open-world action-platformer, the latter a gorgeously high-fidelity journey through a cyberpunk city, with the twist that you play as a cat. And Skin Deep is one of the few shooters in Annapurna’s portfolio – albeit a very unusual one, fusing Far Cry 2 and Prey with Die Hard and Alien to create a lo-fi sandbox stealth game.

That leaves just one game from the showcase, and it typifies the way Annapurna’s aesthetic has expanded more than any other. Developer Ben Esposito has plenty of history with the publisher: he worked on its very first release, What Remains Of Edith Finch, before going solo to develop Donut County. They’re both typically Annapurna games, in their own distinct ways – both designed, as Esposito puts it, “to be someone’s first experience”. His next project, Neon White, is anything but.

“I spent a really long time working on Donut County – it was like six years,” Esposito says. “And I spent the whole time trying to make a game that would be for everyone. And I ended up having to make a lot of decisions that were not easy, to make it really, really accessible for all ages and to people who hadn’t played games before. And I feel happy with the job I did. But after that experience, I was like, OK, if that game was for everyone, my next game is going to be for specific people. It’s not going to appeal to every gamer, and maybe it’s not going to appeal to people who haven’t played a game before. But if this game is for you, it could be your favourite game.”

On the surface, Neon White is an FPS inspired by Quake jump maps and the traversal of hero shooters such as Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch, with a distinctly retro feel: fast, strafe-heavy, testing players’ twitch reflexes. On the other, Esposito explains, “it’s also a visual novel dating sim” drawing on Persona and Danganronpa. And that’s without mentioning the game’s card element – weapons are added to your hand, and can be discarded in exchange for a movement power. It is, as Esposito says, a game for a very specific audience.

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